2 December 2012

Ethiopia: An Unsettling Time for Addis Abeba's Newly Homeless

The persistent squatters in Hanamariam, Nifas Silk Lafto district have now set up the proverbial 'roof over their heads' out of wood and packing foam, right next to where their previous houses used to exist.

It was with much hope that an Addis Abeba resident, Endale Mitiku, 30, contributed 1,000 Br to pave a 3.5Km gravel road that led to his tiny home, located in the woods of Bulbula's "Aba Shame" neighborhood, last May.

So important was it to him, that in fact not only did he contribute money, but he too labored physically on weekends, along with his neighbors, after they were approached to help by their Woreda's development committee. His eagerness did not come as a result of the potential easing of access to his land, which had previously been more than a half-hour trek away from the main road, but rather due to the fact that he believed the road may finally signal some progress in his own long journey of becoming a legal settler in the area.

For Endale, like many residents inEthiopia's capital city, security has never been something that has been associated with home. Ever since moving into his humble dwellings, he has constantly sought to have legality, but always failed to find the avenues through which to have it granted to him.

In 2004, Endale paid 20,000 Br to farmers, in order to acquire a shanty house made of corrugated iron, through use of a 'village contract'. He later went on to build a house on the land himself, at an additional cost of 18,000 Br. Endale knew that such an investment was a risk, but he had no choice but to move from the building he had previously rented in Sidist Kilo, as the land was needed for redevelopment, and thus his landlord resettled elsewhere.

His new landlord had hiked the rental price up from 200 Br to 500 Br overnight, and with monthly earnings of just 600 Br, there was no way that he could afford to pay any longer.

Rather, he was forced to go in search of an alternative if he was to be able to secure shelter for himself and his family. Taking his savings and some loan money, acquired from friends and family, Endale was able to buy his small house in Bulbula, south east of the capital, behindBoleInternationalAirport.

The land did not have a title deed when he acquired it, nor was the contract endorsed by the Documents Registration & Authentication Office (DARO). Water supply came from a nearby water point and he had to pay neighbors 20 Br each month to tap into their electricity. It was not ideal, but Endale, like many, had found that there was no other alternative.

Living in constant fear of eviction and with the knowledge that he had invested all that he had into this small home, on just 100sqm of land, Endale went about trying to obtain legality. He claims that he requested to pay annual land use taxes, but was told that even the farmers in the area had not paid since 2002. He also asked for a building permit, but too this was denied.

This torn down house in Bulbula's Aba-shame neighborhood, Bole district, belongs to Endale Medico's neighbor, who had bought property from the same farmers as Endale.

Everything that he did to secure his home was unsuccessful and soon he found himself caught up within a bureaucratic merry-go-round.

"I requested to be given a title-deed," he told Fortune. "I was told that I needed to get proof of the transfer from DARO. It on the other hand asked for a title-deed, so I was left stuck in the middle."

Participating in the building of the new road, both financially and through voluntary labour, was just one in a long line of efforts that Endale had made to obtain the right to live securely in the house that he had built for himself and his family. Unfortunately for him, and numerous others in a similar situation, it also proved to be his last.

His hopes were dashed rather abruptly, when on November 12, 2012, his house was torn down along with more than 400 other homes in his wereda, as part of a city-wide movement to get rid of the ever-increasing presence of 'illegal' squatters. The city administration had in fact been conducting research on illegal settlements since June 2011, after hearing reports that unofficial building activities were on the rise.

Such dwellings tend to increase when there is uncertainty, such as during the illness and subsequent death of the Prime Minister, according to a senior official at the Land Administration Agency.

"Another time when such settlements were in abundance was after the 2005 elections," he recalled, in an interview he was willing to give anonymously, for, he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The research conducted by the Administration identified six of the 10 districts; Bole, Nifas Silk, Kolfe-Keranio, Yeka, Akaki and Gulele, where illegal settlements were thriving.

"Neighborhoods like Bulbula, and Hanna Mariam, in Nifas Silk Lafto District, are especially prone to such settlements, and wereda and district officials have been busy these last two months identifying and demolishing such houses," Getachew Ambaye, city manager and head of Land Development & Management Bureau, told Fortune.

In Bole District alone, where Bulbula is located, there are 6,000 illegal squatters, according to research carried out by district officials. Out of these, only 2,500 had been built prior to November 2011. Such settlements were categorised into three distinct time periods; '1995 to 2005', '2005 to 2010' and '2010 onwards'. It was decided that houses built after 2010 should be demolished, whilst the fate of the others was still to be determined, according to city officials.

Since September, around 7,000 such homes have now been torn down and an incredible 393.7hct is cleared.

"The freed land will be a great input to the City, as it can be utilised for greater economic developments, the benefits of which the city can use to provide housing, infrastructure and municipal services," said Getachew.

Settlers, however, allege that the campaign too has been prone to corruption. Four settlers whose houses were torn down in Hanamariam, and two others, in addition to Endale, in Bulbula, claim that their houses were built prior to 2010, and yet have still been demolished. They also claim that they made every effort to ensure that the houses existed on the line map in order to protect them, but to no avail.

"My house was built prior to 2010,"Endale told Fortune. "But they have still demolished it. On the other hand there are houses, built only months ago, which are still standing erect."

The Wereda 12 officials where Endale lives, however, deny that the process is random.

"We have a 2010 aerial map of our wereda, which clearly shows buildings that have existed prior to that period," Tsebay Meshesha, executive director of Wereda 12, in Bole District, told Fortune. "Whenever we conduct investigations, we carry a laptop, and a GPS that can identify the coordinates of particular locations. We, then, match the coordinates with the map, so the process is very accurate."

In fact, Endale's claim, along with those of his two neighbours, was even confirmed by an official in the District, who sent a note to Wereda officials, directing them not to tear down the houses.

Tsebay, nonetheless, deny this claim.

"There are many complaint files from people who claim that their houses were built prior to 2010," he said dismissively. "However, most of these contain forged documents from farmers' cooperatives, which lie about dates. We can crosscheck any of the houses, if people file complaints; but, in most cases we turn out to be right."

In addition to the settlers' claims about the inconsistencies in the demolition of homes, many also claim that wereda officials had known of the existence of many of the houses previously and had even witnessed some of them being built. Close to 50 of these actually took their case to a court of law, and brought an order to stop local officials demolishing their homes. They produced proof of payments for installing communion water provision and community development works, all following requests from wereda officials, proving some degree of recognition by the wereda administration, they argue.

"People usually give bribes to such officials, for them to turn a blind eye," Denekew Wale, a settler in Hanamariam whose house has been torn down, told Fortune.

Endale and neighbors too claimed that they had been asked to come up with 2,000 Br to get title deeds from wereda officials some months back, but it was something that they could not afford.

"Others have obtained title deeds after paying," a neighbor of Endale told Fortune.

Some squatters completely abandon the site where their houses used to exist, like the one looking instead for a shelter from neighbours, which have

The fact that there are officials open to bribery was even confirmed by Getachew, the city manager.

"The city is taking measure on those that have illegally provided infrastructure or supplied title deeds and provided building permits to illegal settlers," he told Fortune. "So far, 23 wereda officials have been removed from their posts and will be delivered to court."

From the 23, a little less than half had worked in the Bole District, and seven in Nifas Silk-Lafto.

"There are a further 163 officials who have been identified and will face appropriate response," he said. "Farmers who transfer homes are also not without blame. They usually swindle city residents into acquiring land, which has been transferred to the city administration and for which they have already received compensation."

Indeed out of the 393.7hct so far secured by the government, through the demolition of illegal settlements, 306 of them had already been compensated previously.

Regardless of how meticulously the process has or has not been conducted, however, it has certainly 'failed to follow the due process of law', according to the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRCo), which will issue a special report on the situation in just a few weeks' time.

"If a law was broken, then the Administration should have taken its case to a court, which would then decide on the action to be taken," Endalkachew Molla, director of the EHRCo, told Fortune.

"Starting a campaign out of nowhere is not the solution," he said.

Citizens have a right to shelter, and the opinion of most of the people in Bulbula that spoke to Fortune, was that if this was not being provided by the government, then too they should overlook efforts by the people to provide it for themselves. According to the administration's own research, the gap between demand and supply of houses in Addis Abeba leaves around 300,000 individuals short of suitable shelter.

"With such problems in the city, the Administration could at least provide us with means of legalizing the houses, if the land is not needed for redevelopment purposes," Endale complains.

This is unfeasible for many reasons, however, according to City Administration officials.

"Just because a problem exists people cannot take matters into their own hands and break the law," Getachew, the city manager, defends measures his Administration is taking. "This is unfair to those that have to bear disproportionate rent prices in cities because they managed to respect the law."

The City Administration claims that most of those that have illegally settled in the peripheries of the capital are not those who cannot find shelter, but rather those who already have a home in the capital and want to "buy" land for cheap prices which they can then "sell" at a later date.

"Around 64pc of illegal settlers in Wereda 12, Bole District, already have homes in Addis Abeba," according to Tsebay. "These people usually build shanty homes to preserve the land and have low-income people, in need of shelter, guard their homes until they can 'sell' them for a higher price."

But for those that are really struggling with shelter, the government is currently subsidizing several housing schemes, and certainly 'not turning a blind eye', according to Getachew.

Indeed, there are condominium apartments and the more recent housing projects dubbed 10-90 and 40-60 schemes in which the government provides loans to be paid over a long period of time.

Such schemes, however, are not solving the problem, and a Professor from the Ethiopian Institute of Architecture, Building Construction & City Development (EiABC), with 15 years of teaching and research experience in urban planning, explains an alternative approach.

"Since these solutions take time to be administered, a better way would be to find settlement for those whose homes have been demolished," he suggested. "These new settlements should have infrastructure and also provide alternative business opportunities for those whose livelihood was torn down along with the houses."

The Professor concedes that, 'this may be encouraging those who had previously chosen an illegal path towards securing shelter'. However, with the deficit in housing in Addis Abeba, he believes that this may well be the only option.

The most devastating part of this campaign was that settlers were given very short notice in which to appeal or at least secure alternative shelter. Many did not even have time to move out their family or equipment before the wereda officials came knocking.

Endale, for example, claims that he was warned on a Friday and then had his house demolished just three days later. With nowhere else to stay, and the money that they had previously spent on building their houses now turned to dust, there are not many options left available to those families who have now been made homeless.

Endale and three of his neighbours have been given temporary space by the farmers who had initially transferred the land to them. He now resides with his two children and wife in what used to be a rudimentary kitchen, whilst one of his neighbours lives in an old stable, suitable for livestock and cattle, but not for human beings.

The situation is even more desperate in Hanamariam, where some settlers were seen immediately setting up small shelters from plastic bags, wood and cardboard, claiming that they have nowhere else to go.

The City Administration is not adopting solutions such as the one suggested above, and no alternative housing solutions are being provided for the settlers. The only hope Endale sees of securing shelter in the near future is proving proof that he did indeed build his home prior to 2010 and thus attempting to reacquire the plot land.

Until then, however, he, like many others, will be left to face an uncertain future.

With government 'low cost schemes' failing to solve the shortfall in housing, at least in the most immediate future, and rental rates in the city ever increasing, the real question is, how many others like him will too be left homeless by the campaign over the coming months?

Having nowhere to go squatters sometimes gather wood and other debris from demolished sites to then build a shoddy temporary shelter right next to where their houses are demolished.

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